Great Granny applies the military term ‘need to know’
as she continues to satisfy cries for help world-wide

By Carl Dow

At 86 Rosaleen Leslie Dickson has a keen mind, a sharp wit, and the energy of one half her age. Rosaleen effectively wields the power of words. She’s an active, leading member of a number of organizations including the National Press Club and the Ottawa Independent Writers. When Rosaleen speaks or writes, everyone pays attention. Her remarkable career as a journalist and as an author continues to have an international personal-level impact.

Rosaleen Leslie Dickson’s published works have always resulted from a “need to know.” All her books have been purely informational. As editor of a country weekly for more than 30 years, she developed the habit of sticking to facts that mattered for her specific readers. The immediate need for her first book was to find out about her family roots, and make sure her progeny would also be well acquainted with theirs.

In 1989, after 20 years of extensive research, mainly through Nova Scotia and Scotland, Rosaleen and her husband, David Rutherford Dickson, completed “Dickson-Leslie Family Histories,” published by Custom Printers in Renfrew.  Interspersing engaging historical accounts with essential genealogical charts made the book readable, so it found its way into a number of libraries and orders for copies came from near and far. Distant relatives here and abroad enjoyed reading the book’s little vignettes of family lore to their children and grandchildren, including Rutherfords, Sleighs, Masons, Smarts, Moirs, Archibalds, Putnams, Starratts, Wentzells and many more. The authors agreed that having the book out in the public domain was a great satisfaction.

During those 20 years researching for the “Histories,” she was also working on Avenging in the Shadows, the complete story of RAF Bomber Squadron 214 FMS, in which her husband served during World War 2. Again, it was a joint effort, using reminiscences from among the members of the “214,” collected by F/L Ron James, who also provided extensive Squadron statistics and pictures of the men, and the planes they flew. Rosaleen took on the project to fill what she felt was a need for the public to understand the effect of that war on the individuals caught up in it on a day-to-day basis. The book was published in England, and has filled that need.

In the early 1990s, when the Internet first came to Ottawa, Rosaleen embraced the novelty at once. She observed a need on the part of neophytes to use this mysterious new communications concept, so she teamed up with fellow journalist Pierre Bourque, and together they wrote “Freenet For the Fun of It,” which went on to a second edition, published by Stoddart.

A few years later Rosaleen became intrigued by the World Wide Web and with coaching from Rony Aoun, a brilliant young Carleton University Computer student, she wrote “HTML for people who would rather do it than read about it.” This little primer was sold in computer stores around Ottawa and was used by a number of high school children who needed help setting up their first Web sites.

When Rosaleen was asked by Richard Denesiuk, a Winnipeg-based social worker, to write an advice column as a service for seniors, it never occurred to her that the exercise would eventually turn into a book, but that’s what happened. This time it was on her own; no co-author was indicated because the project was totally a one-woman enterprise.

The title of the column, chosen by Denesiuk was Ask Great Granny, and it drew attention across Canada, the U.S. and in several other countries, Australia, the U.K, Belgium, India, to name a few.  Every day Rosaleen still receives Dear Great Granny letters from people whose problems have so disturbed them that they resort to the Internet for a solution. 

The problems always concern personal relations with family members, parents, siblings, children, sometimes grandparents, occasionally neighbours, even employers or employees. Inability to cope with the behaviour of others, and frustration at not being able to get others to toe their specific lines, drives them to send out e-mail describing their whole sad story to Great Granny.

Before delegating these letters to her trash, Rosaleen sends a suggestion to the troubled soul that usually elicits a “thank you” for her concern. Since it’s impossible to change other people, the onus is always on the writers to change themselves. This is not always an easy solution, but it is an honest one, usually recognized and appreciated.

Using words like compassion, forgiveness, understanding and love in her recipes for reconciliation help these unknown correspondents to recognize that the fault is not always the other person’s. As most of the letters are about problems with mothers-in-law, or the converse, problems with daughters-in-law, Rosaleen was eventually pressed to write a book about that particular relationship.

The need was evident, so her next book was called, simply, The Mother in Law Book, published by General Store Publishing House. It steers people around many inter-generational potholes, never claiming to provide solutions but just careful discussions of the need to think through their dilemmas for themselves. As always, Rosaleen tells us she just wrote another book to fill a need.

We wonder what book Rosaleen Leslie Dickson will write next?